BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County this week pledged to match a $3 million state allocation to build the Nature Coast Educational Plaza.
The move was made to stave off a possible veto of the state money by Gov. Rick Scott. In a letter, Hernando County Administrator Len Sossamon assured Scott that "Hernando County will match, dollar for dollar, the investment the State of Florida chooses to make in this project.''
After approval of the tentative state budget, county officials learned that they had been granted $1 million in one funding category and $3 million in another for the plaza, which has been proposed as a tourism center, museum and environmental education center.
This week, Sossamon said, the county got word from its lobbyists that the $1 million allocation likely would be vetoed by Scott and that the $3 million stood a better chance of approval if the county pledged a match. Because of the tight deadline, Sossamon said he asked commission Chairman Wayne Dukes what to do, and Dukes said to go ahead and write the letter.
"We see this as a wonderful regional tourism draw that will increase economic development, create jobs and provide for education opportunities for Florida's visitors and residents,'' Sossamon wrote. While Tampa Bay continues to grow, "unfortunately the growth in Hernando to date has not capitalized on the wonderful natural environment that attracts nature enthusiasts from across the country.''
Sossamon goes on to explain: "There is very limited access to the Gulf of Mexico: thus, the county has a master plan to increase tourism and access to the gulf, quarry lakes and the beautiful natural environment that attracts bird-watching enthusiasts from all over the world.''
County officials have pointed at the educational plaza as part of that plan.
Until recently, the facility has been tied to expansion plans at Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach. Dukes has been involved in discussions with the marina owner about putting the plaza at that site. But now, county officials are saying the money could be used anywhere.
Residents of Hernando Beach have strongly opposed placement of the center off narrow Shoal Line Boulevard at the marina site and have fought having their residential neighborhood become more of a tourist destination. Various alternative locations will be discussed during a County Commission meeting next month. In preparation, county officials will be looking at examples of similar facilities, Sossamon said.
He noted that commissioners will have to ratify the letter and the promise to match the money at a future meeting. He said he was not sure where the money would come from; that question will be addressed later, he said.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said it was news to her that the county needed to provide matching money, but she was in favor of finding the funds.
"If we invest in the community," she said, "I believe we will get back from it."
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.